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Summer research stories: UC prof writes timely book on Indian politics

Her timing ended up being perfect. It was 2014, and University of Cincinnati professor Rina Williams was a couple of years into researching a book on women and religious nationalist movements in India, when the very party she was studying catapulted to power. 

Since then, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has ruled Indian politics. Its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, easily won reelection in May, in the largest expression of Democracy the world has ever seen—900 million Indian voters, many of them, of course, women. 

“It certainly makes my book timely,” says Williams, who finished the first draft this summer with a $6,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She’s excited to already have good interest in getting it published.

Williams fascination with the topic grew out of her general interests in how religion, gender and nationalism influence politics around the globe. That was the focus of her first book, “Postcolonial Politics and Personal Laws: Colonial Legal Legacies and the Indian State,” published by Oxford University Press in 2006. 

Born in India, Williams was just 11 months old when her parents immigrated to the United States. She’s traveled back and forth over the last six years, spending sometimes months at a time interviewing women, attending political rallies and digging through historical archives for party documents.

If you ask Williams, women in India are slowly but surely carving out an important place in the political landscape.

The BJP has been incorporating more and more women into its organization in the last decade, Williams explains, with female counterparts serving as campaigners and members of some political committees. But the BJP credo continues to support traditional gender roles and displays forms of nationalist masculinity. 

“The ideology isn’t gender progressive,” Williams says. “It struck me as a puzzle: How does this party win women’s votes?” 

Her book focuses on religious nationalist movements and women from 1915 to 2015, but pulls from history even further back, when the British impacted Hindu-Muslim relations. The country became a secular democracy in 1947 but with religious family laws, Williams says. Considering, too, that India has never fallen below 75 percent Hindu, one can see how religion could lead to some serious debate. 

“The role of religion has been debated from day one,” Williams says. It’s been interesting, she says, to watch Hindus slowly start to vote more and more for the BJP. That hadn’t happened before. “Hindus are very different; different languages, different castes, different sects.”

It’s not entirely unlike what’s happening in the United States and other countries in the world which have seen a swell in religious nationalist movements, Williams says, but how India got there is telling.

So, where do women fit in this picture? What did they say when Williams asked why they voted for the BJP?

“The same reasons men would vote for the party,” Williams says. “If women feel connected to religion, (BJP) may have an advantage with women. When Modi was campaigning for reelection, he also spoke a lot about the economy, anti-corruption and anti-poverty. We need not assume women wouldn’t believe in this ideology, too.”

It also comes from the party’s argument, she says, that men and women are equal, but that they have different roles in society.

“They are more than tokens or window dressing,” Williams says, “but still far from having 50-50 equality.”